The past is a foreign country – when we travel to it we remember what shouldn’t be forgotten. This is a short-story set around the time of the Carthaginian holocaust at the hands of the Romans. A potential Part I to a full-fledged novel. What do you think – does it have potential to blossom into a novel?
The Carthaginian host came to the morn shorn of glories returned. Stone grey and wisened. Roofs christened by chrysanthemum winds. The girl swimming in the shallow waters the Mediterranean claims as its own. Grandfather Cinesias watches her. Is she a wave or is she an arm? Wave-in-arm forever wed. The sea is nothing she is nothing together ah what a delightful delusion of something.
“Don’t swim out too far Elissa!” He shouts in his still vagrant manly windvoice.
She turns around looks towards him nods a smiling nod and catches an echo of his wrinkled words. His words bounced off the waves like a head un-bodied crashing against a bed of rocks. Up-down-up-down nothing lives everything dies so don’t ever silly frown. Will Cinesias die one day soon just like Himalcar died?
She returns ashore. She is tired but her unfurled hair curls around her dark face creating a mythomania of sated soothed serenity. Seer’s sanity. She approaches her grandfather and hugs him. She feels his feeble Grecian frame a blank slate of bygone Magna Graecia. He kisses the top of her head as if it were an altar parlayed upon the reflection of Venus’ nipplae.
“I’m tired.” She sighed as she sat down in the sand next to him.
“Your body may be, but your mind is unbounded.”
“Don’t minds ever get tired?”
“But of course. Everything tires, Elissa.”
“Because we are made of atoms that are finite. Everything that’s finite has to whither, does it not, otherwise it would not be finite.”
As if somehow wishing to disprove her grandfather and the universe Elissa began cart-wheeling over the sand tired but indefatigable into the sea into the waves making herself so dizzy she craved fainting. She collapsed her back slamming against the rock-hard sea and her mind whiplashed into the past’s future: as her eyes closed and phoenixed out of Pandora’s nullity she saw the face of her brother smiling with lips she could not touch only feel and eyebrows that groaned with happiness. Hamilcar: are all brothers dead everywhere? Or just mine. Just mine.
When she opened her eyes: O mother O familiarity. Home is where kin lies. Come war or ravishing malaise: where mother smiles the child never cries.
“Finally you’re awake. What have I done to deserve this patience!”
“Mother, is Himalcar’s mind still thinking around somewhere?”
Her mother sighed tragedy. “Dear Elissa, the vividness of his mind will never be overwhelmed. Thoughts are the only thing that can traverse entire universes.”
“I don’t want him to be traversing the universe. Just here with me.”
When night fell nothing changed but beauty shed her skin to reveal sinuousness. The sky calm and the sea languid the familiars set out a table outside on the sand and extracted lamps from within and brought them to the altar of that which so gently dies. Food was delivered from the earth-fed stove. What the earth eateth it doth feedeth. The beginning of the night knew no desire. It would blossom into a desirable something. Every something is a non-death. Non-sequiter. Hello. Take take yes I do not mind. Here.
“Elissa. Your mother tells me you saw Hamilcar today. What think you?” With a mollusk-derived container of wine to his mouth uncle Hecataeus spoke from behind his darkened beard that knew more sun than the sun-scorched flesh of the tortured.
“I think Hamilcar is dead.” Elissa spoke with her hands twirling the fate of her emancipated locks.
Uncle Hecataeus burped a burly laugh as if to say: by the heavens the young caterpillar has a winged mind!
“It’s not funny.” She scowled with her pupils pupating and her face changing tone like twins sifting kaleidoscopically into one another.
“It is not funny perhaps not.” Her nephew Adherbal began as if he were a sun setting behind the moonrise. “But if Hamilcar were here now – and the gods know how much we wish it so – what would you do with him: play or weep?”
“It’s all the same.” Elissa huffed not wishing to talk of her departed brother as if his loss was hers alone.
“She is not wrong.” Her grandfather Cinesias intervened with his eyes transfixed by the vanishing twilight star. “Playing and weeping are but two faces of the same chimera. When you weep you recover emotions. When you play you uncover them. What fool would dare contradict my verse!” He laughed holding a piece of plain star-kissed star-stuff bread to his whitened lips. All laughed and as they laughed Elissa loved in the shadow of dusk. She wanted verily to go for another swim in the black shanks of the night’s thighs but she did not wish to be alone. The others were right: stop talking of Hamilcar: maybe he will come back.
As the night aged and its revelers grew younger Cinesias’ younger brother Calliphon began growing fat under the weight of wine cajoling his mind: namely: the wine’s atoms pressed on his skull’s and his thoughts grew strained. Very soon he was. Buffoonery? What is life if not a river eroding the valley of death?
“Elissa, child of my brother’s kin, come here, let it be imprinted upon your cocooned being: religion is the cause of all ha-ha-harm! Those who promulgate it are tethered to infanticide, those who accept it unerringly are cerberus’ bitches; ha, mighty ha!”
Elissa grew cold as his warm breath crawled over her shoulders like a cancerous arachnid. She held stiff breathing heavily: she wanted his elderliness to go away. Besides, didn’t her grandfather say that Hamilcar was with the gods now? Up above, in those stars so untainted, does he not also live untainted?
“Calliphon that’s enough!” Elissa’s father Mago placed his hand quakingly on his uncle’s shoulder nearly pulling him away into the sand. “Your drunkenness has overtaken you. Your mind is a slave. Retreat for the night, and reclaim mastery over yourself.”
“Mago. Ma-go. I will not go. The child needs to learn. Your child. M-ago. Go on. She doesn’t know how evil religion can be because she’s here, sheltered, pro-tected. She hasn’t seen what I have seen. Children just like her having their throats sl-it at the altar all to appease an immovable, indifferent deity. Why protect her from the truthful myth of malaise?”
Mago saw Elissa cover her ears and protect her mind from visual permeable imagery and he could do nought else but to strike his chain-mouthed pig-slobbering uncle. Calliphon toppled smiling sheepishly as he dined on second-hand sand.
One mere pebble thrown is enough to topple a fortress wall. Calliphon’s son Ephorus pounced like a leopard proclaiming its spots and made to strike at Mago. But Mago – a man whose mind tarried in favour of his body’s grace – ducked like a metaphor hiding in the shadow of a hyperbole then returned the coup de grace and ended up with father and son conjoined head-first on the sand. Elissa held her head in her hands and drowned everything out but the stars. Stars. Poo-hey. Hey. Stop. Cinesias intervened, the patriarch raking up the mirth, picked up Calliphon and Ephorus from the sand, grabbed their robes and kicked their backside growling: “you lambs, retire, do not emerge until you are your own shepherds.” They disappeared into the house shadowed by the birch forest and cradled by the half-light of midnight. To his own son Mago he decried: “what pleasure do you take from such brutality?” He faced him, eyeing him dead in the eye, and all knew the severity and import of his question. Mago backed away and returned to his wine, not knowing wherein pleasure went to hide.
Elissa’s intrusive introversion was whisked away by a gale of admiration at her eloquently bull-headed grandfather. She knew tomorrow peace would once more reign and even now amicability returned like a long-lost tide. Now there was merriment anew. And when Cinesias asked Elissa to share with the nuclear extended family a little poem of hers she gleefully leapt up upon the table and began striding across its length, dancing around the food and spilled wine. It was one she had written that day and its freshness claimed the sharpness of memory. She began with a voice half-African half-cheetah.
“ Where the owl does this night alight
There are couples proud to forsake the light
For to be blind is to be out of mind.”
As she lay in her bed that night the morning already dawning she could not force her eyelids down. From her small frugal bedroom she had a tiny window enormous enough to keep out all the elements. From its vantage view panoramic grandeur she could see the fire of the gods stars eternities away. And as happy as she was as she dozed off she could not help wishing she was in that faraway Olympus where her brother reclined. Paradise is so distant when death is so near.
When she awoke to the brightness of the African day she could not but feel sad at her latent happiness. Was the night’s crusade just a bad dream? Do nightmares ever become dreams again? All it takes is a bright full dawn. Grandfather: let’s go swimming. Mother let’s go to the market of Carthage. Father: let’s go climbing thick trees in the forest. Uncles: friends: let’s play and learn learn and play.
The lightning of heaven goes through the walls of the houses.
Grandfather Cinesias was a Greek who in his youth had lived in the Garden of Epicurus’ disciples. A walled-away idyll where only philosophy and pleasures benignly simple mattered: even the gods were not allowed to permeate their manna. In such climes Cinesias grew into a birch tree: his purple heart immunised to the moan and groan of politics: man is the dog dogged by ambition. But ambition is pain. It provides shots of pleasure. And sustained torment. And so when mercantile Cinesias emigrated to Carthage seeking out a new sun and a new Parnassus he bought a villa outside the city where he and his growing family could be secluded from lumbering news and heavy-hearted decrees.
Cinesias and his family were the only souls in the whole of Carthage who were surprised by the fanged arrival of the Roman legions and shark-infested fleets. Their landing on the tip of Africa cast shadows of anchored panic across the luminous city. Indifferent to the language of politics, Elissa and her family would now learn, as all must, the vernacular of war. No good man was spared. As the Roman rams towered above mines the heart of Carthage grew a tortoise carapace.
Elissa watched as Cinesias and all the men of the family transformed their former home into a citadel: no more would any birds alight in their garden. Not even the tides dared tickle the metallic feet of the family stronghold. Routines abandoned. Re-drawn. Being on the outskirts of the city they were mercifully distant from the onslaught. But tales take little time flittering into hearts-like-fortresses. “They’re nearing Byrsa.” Mago told them one night. “Hasdrubal is taunting the Romans. I’ve seen him torturing prisoners in plain view of the enemy. The air rained agony. Adam’s apple cleft like apples. Soft inside. O he’s asking for it. We all are.”
“Do you think we can hold out?” Ayzebel, Elissa’s mother, asked weeping willows billowing sapling’s seeping poison.
“We must. Hasdrubal is capable. He has turned Carthage into an armoury. There are more swords made every day now than children have ever been born. The men will be brave for him.” Mago vented vaingloriously.
“Are you blind!” Ephorus the drunk soberly sombre replied. “The Romans have been enraged. Hasdrubal keeps denying them. We should just surrender! They are a juggernaut we are a drunken rabble. We should save ourselves.”
“I’d rather slit my own throat than surrender to any Roman.” Ayzebel silenced him with stoic fervour. Elissa noticed. She saw her mother as a poem that rhymed with some dark verse deep inside her.
As two years passed the family tried their best to minimise suffering and enlighten the scuttling pleasures. Food and supplies were scarce. But Cinesias had prepared his family well: if one cannot be happy with the very least than one is a failed animal and a petty god. The lively nights continued but talk returned more and more towards death. Elissa remembered what her grandfather had told her when Hamilcar died. She wanted to know:
“If anything happens where can I go… to find the sky!”
“You’ll know, child. As long as you never stop seeking. I don’t mind this war, you see. In my age you don’t live here: you’re just passing through. If I go down in flames there will be nothing to burn. But you, Elissa, I.” He broke off. Red cheeks. Tingling peaks. She scowled: sulked and lamented herself for asking.
“We’re all just passing through.” Calliphon picked up the torch fueled by melancholy’s bones. “Even the little ones. We are borrowed little temporalities waiting to return to the permanent nothingness. Oh no nothing comes out of nothing. But as sure as I here stand that is where everything goes.”
The front door sighed a-knock a-knock as if a sword through an expectant vein. Who goes there? “Open this door! Your city demands your blood!” Elissa huddled at her grandfather’s feet. Her mother placed her head on her hands. The voice and the banging grew louder. Mago went to the door. Ayzebel tried to hold him back. But rage is a man-mountain no feminine swell could topple. He opened the door and saw two soldiers outside, armed with leering spears and goldglisteningglittering armour. Their faces were weary. Their beards unshaved and unkempt. Mago stood at the door not-confronting them confronting them. They spoke squawking like tethered bulls.
“Every able-bodied man is needed at the walls. The enemy is strengthening. If Carthage falls we all fall.”
“This is not our war to fight!” Mago growled mane-less. Maimed insane.
“Insolent idler!” The taller of the soldiers grabbed Mago by the neck and pushed him out into the street. His companion forced his way into the house and, with his sword unsheathed, dragged all the young men outside: Ephorus Hecataeus Abdemom Zakar Ithobaal Eudoxos. They were all rounded up outside. Elissa watched her father being punched by the soldier he defied. Her mother tried to overt her gaze but she was too teary-eyed to turn away. The women hit out at the soldiers but what can a palm do against a sword?
For Elissa those soldiers were the harbingers of death. She felt mounting hatred towards them. It was they who had taken Hamilcar: finally she could see! Death was no longer a severed voice like a bat in the night. Now it was corporeal fleshed-out goldenglisteningglittering. She hated those soldiers more than she did the Romans. And she ran outside but Ephorus stopped her before the soldiers could hurt her. One. Two. Three. And scream. Like a river overflowing. Scream. As if your funeral was not your own.
“Elissa, get inside!” Mago, from the floor dusty terrifyingly omniscient, shouted at his daughter. “Get inside, now! I will see you again. I promise!”
Those were the last words father would utter to daughter as Elissa was dragged inside by elderly Cinesias, back into the house, back into the rooms creeping with rumbling silence. When the soldiers disappeared into the unwritten chaos the front door closed again and the only sound to be heard was the groans of widows and orphans. Cinesias, petrified by the impossibility of life’s auditory renewal, fumbled an attempt at mass consolation. But the grand-patriarch proved gullibly naïve. “We spend all our lives dreaming elaborate dreams, until the haunted hour comes to make us realise our true dreams had been in our midst all along.”
Mago and the other men had been forcibly conscripted to fight a battle that could not be won. Rome was not here – as it had been before – to conquer Carthage. Carthago delenda est. Carthage must be destroyed. When a thought becomes a phrase then the self-fulfilling prophecy must inevitably be fulfilled. Cato the Elder had spoken Carthage’s death-sentence. There was no going back. The Roman navy was here to rewrite history: their pens dripping with African blood.
In the coming weeks and months that went and came without time or shine day or sinew Cinesias grew more and more haggard and distraught. Elissa looked at him and saw with cankerous clarity that her grandfather was dying just as hastily as his son and all the other men of his family. The war had imposed on him another war. Time was besieging his fragile bastions. Elissa was scared of him. He was forgetful. Short-tempered. Tired. Hostile. He was forgetful. Short-tempered. Wait. And as food became all the more scarce he was confined to his bed like a fly is to a web and the spider to its lust to weave.
No news ever comes. Where are they? Are they dead like the rest or alive and miserable like all of us?
One morning as Elissa stood beside Cinesias’ bedside, she saw a new white dawn creep across his face. His eyes melted like wax in the heat of Tartarus. Elissa shot up terrified by this volcanic scion of gloom. Like a mummy came suddenly to life Cinesias’ arm shot out and caught Elissa’s wrist in a skeletal grip. And his words followed with the silent deathliness of an owl’s wings: “Fire, the fire, it comes!” He let her go and Elissa ran to her mother outside. She found her and her sister Asherah, both bent double-haggard on their knees, their faces aghast just like Cinesias’. Elissa feared death’s permeation in life. Hamilcar, she thought, you were the lucky one! I just want to see you and tell you.
“Mother, what’s happening?”
“There is fire near the library. The enemy is inside our walls!” Ayzebel spoke like a wave shackled by the inertia of the deep blue. Why are words necessary at the very very end? “Mago, he, he must have been defending the walls. Now, now there is nothing left of him but ashes. My love, my temple: smoke evaporating into the air!” Ayzebel was hysterical. Finally: words failed her. She had suddenly aged and become a child. Asherah pulled her off her feet and tried to embrace her but Ayzebel wouldn’t let her. She broke free and ran towards the sea.
“Mother!” Elissa screeched and thought yes she thought: I can’t live out your life too, mother. This was to do with a promise she made to Hamilcar.
Asherah ran after her sister who was determinedly sprinting towards the warm embrace of the cold sea. She caught up to her just as she reached the shallows and with the strength of a thousand beasts of burden she pulled Ayzebel out of the constricting waves and saved her life for just a few more days.
Days pregnant with torturous stillness. Days of flame and ash and the screams of children from the city centre. Days of abandonment. Days when death was a brother a father an uncle a daughter. Days of beautiful sunrises over light-starved eyes. Days when the dying take one more shot at sanity.
“Elissa! Elissa!” Cinesias howled at her like a starving jackal from his room. She ran to him. She found him sat upright on the bed. Grandfather? “The Romans. They are coming. I can hear them. Quick, come to me.”
“Aaahhh!” From the near distance the scream of a dying woman pierced the half-light of morning. Cinesias’ sheets were still as they had been when Elissa was but a child. She ran to the window and she saw distant figures – silhouettes like newborn ravens – fighting in the distant neighbourhood on the edge of the forest. Boulders catapulted into the air and torches suddenly thundered alight and within a few time-desecrating minutes all the houses were a funeral pyre: inside Elissa could just hear: the screams of men women and children burning very much alive very much dead. The screams of those dying in the midst of life are the whispers of the truth made river.
The door to the room suddenly crashed open. Elissa shook in cold fright. Her mother came running in. She went to grab Elissa from her waist but Cinesias shouted at her, pushing her away with his second-life voice. “Leave her!”
“Father, we must flee, we must run, they are coming, we can’t waste time!”
“Time is already wasted. Time exists now only for Elissa.”
“Grandfather what are you saying?”
“Elissa, you are the only one that can make it.” His words were singed by the crackling aroma of the nearby flames: tainted as they were with the aftertaste of flesh a-burning.
“You must run, Elissa, run.”
“But where, grandfather, they’re everywhere!” She argued looking around the corner of her lips melting as if with the flames her eyes welcoming the last reign of rain.
“Run to the sea, Elissa. Swim out, like you’ve done many times before, swim out as far as you can. Do not stop.”
“And you, and mother, and everyone! Yes, come, we’ll all go, for a swim, right?”
“I am too old and the others, they cannot swim like you can.” Cinesias spoke with his eyes fixed on his daughter-in-law’s resigned understanding gaze. They spoke now, over Elissa’s head, the sign-language of the defeated.
“He’s right Elissa!” Ayzeba nodded her tears dried in stasis. “You must go. You can make it. You’re so young. My sweet daughter. I will not lose you too!”
“We’ll all run. We’ll run to the forests. I know my way there. We’ll be safe!” Elissa spoke cheerfully wounded.
“The Romans will burn down every tree and every hillside. They won’t stop until not even a bird in Carthage is left to recall our city. But they can’t burn the sea, can they?” Cinesias said as he stood up, preparing himself for static flight. The sprint of the immobile. The leap of the grounded. Flight of the clipped wing.
“I won’t, I can’t: I’ll stay, with you all, we’ll all go join Hamilcar!” Elissa sighed her mouth opened wide like an abyss and fell to her knees to paralysed to even shed a gold-tinged tear.
“Elissa. Listen to me.” Her mother wrapped her arm around her and spoke with the clarity of a woman whose burden of life had been lifted. “Elissa: there is nothing for you to but to live. It is what the rivers and the mountains and the cranes have been doing since the beginning of time. My darling, if you live, we live. Remember the promise, the promise you made to Hamilcar after he died? You promised to.”
“Live out his life as if it were my own.”
“Yes!” Cinesias said as he too knelt down beside her the only warmth in the room now the warmth of a family awaiting the cold burn. “Now you must live for all of us. Relive the past we wasted and the futures we were denied. You are the fortunate one. The chosen one. You are born into a universe made by and for atoms. Without purpose.”
“But not you.” Ayzebel snaked around her father-in-law’s labyrinthine words. “You are the exception. All your life you must keep running, swimming into life. For all our sake. Not only Hamilcar’s, but mine, your father’s: everyone’s. This life we’ve lived here. Our only wish is to carry on living it. Without intrusions without war. Only you can do that for us. Yearn for nothing more. Crave only the pleasures we have known here. And we shall never die.”
“Your every memory of us is all the religion you need know. Don’t stop swimming until you find freedom. And if you ever get lonely, look to the skies and the stars: we are amongst you. The sky is your memory made flesh.”
Cinesias barely had time to finish his unfinishable words before Elissa – screaming like a child raised in the jungle’s coil – ran out of the room out of the house out of the garden far away as hard as she can towards the sea towards unparted finity and the cosmic nullity that lashed against pasts born of futures denied. She uttered no words of goodbye to her mother and grandfather. She would not. They would remain. With her. Besides. Hamilcar was taken before she could even see him die. Her father and the rest of her family were taken from her when hope still malingered. Severed from her entire family Elissa had ne’er uttered a single goodbye.
The sea felt cold but she took a deep breath and imagined the songs of dolphins. She looked back and saw the smoking chaos. And she saw: a small legion making their way towards her house. Her instinct was to run back: to save the helpless though she was all the more helpless. But she held her ground. She saw. No: splash! She dived in and as she crashed into the murky silence everything was drowned out and she was all fish eloquent and malleable a body made of movement. When she emerged her body like an arrow still fresh from the recoil she swam on darting through the parting waves water banging against the walls of her sealed lips and her arms swaying through the froth like swords through flames. When she tired she stopped her feet paddling in the sudden depths she looked back. She saw her house – made from the brick of idylls – ablaze: the flames blown towards the city to join in the ocean of skybound fire. The sky had turned a sulphuric haze. A darkness contributed by the ashes of her kin: her mother and grandfather reduced to an ash cloud.
Whenever she felt her body stiffening under the heavy burden of disgust and sorrow she felt herself sinking.
So she swam on. Thinking to herself all the while: “Elissa, the pain you will feel is natural. It will cripple you like no pain you have ever known. But what are you going to do, just stop?” Already her still maturing inner voice her inner logos spoke with the wisening wisdom of her grandfather. I will never forget that voice no matter how far the years advance! It was hours before she stopped again. She was so far out at sea now that all she could see over the left-behind horizon was the tower of familiar smoke: nothing of the land beneath. The only land she had ever known. She was tired beyond expression. The sea grew cold and she feared the gnarling sinister silhouettes that might lurk beneath her.
“Don’t be such a coward!” In the delirium of dusk it was Hamilcar that spoke to her through the ether of unforgivable memory. “Swim on you prissy African princess! There are so many things I want you to write for me. Damned be all the monsters of the unfathomable deep! Fear instead the creatures creepingcrawling through the nookscrooks of your mind you crazy girl!”
Invisible amidst the unintelligible Elissa laughed the day away and when evening softly fell she found herself more tired at laughing with her brother than she was from swimming.
In the middle of the un-light in a realm not her own intruding in the home of creatures unknown she lay on her back upon her bed of salt and sheets of mumbling tides. Her ears submerged she could hear the crackling jittering of salt: a thousand miniature explosions of minerals every second. The waves greeted her as they passed her by but she couldn’t understand. Her hands holding her head above water she came face to face with the cloudless night sky.
Etched into the milkiness of the blooming galaxies she could read a million biographies past and present. Beyond the bright light of the winkingsinking stars she could just see her brother swimming in the same water as she looking up and down at her: the sky was a grand two-way mirror. Beside Hamilcar, in that non-land of perfection and harmony, there stood Mago, Ayzebel, Cinesias and all the rest. Beside her there existed only nullity. Silence. A world-wide loneliness and insincerity. And as she felt herself falling asleep into the un-sleep of grandiose fatigue she was willing to sink all the way floating drowning until she awoke on the other side of the sky.
But not even sleep would be permitted that night: silencer of all the days. A wave suddenly crashed upon her startling her salty water pitting itself into the back of her throat. She awoke straightened and looked around for the source of that sudden wave: for the summer winds were all a-slumber. Then, a few hundred metres to the west she saw a nimble trireme ship scouting the seas of muted history. As it rowed towards her the waves buffeting her like a raindrop in a pre-storm she pondered over her appointed role in this drama of destiny.
She believed herself – for she was told so – that she was the vessel of her family’s destiny and that freedom to seek out a return to the past was her soul’s sole journey. What would her muffled kin wish of her: capture: enslavement: or the freedom of sinking into the other-underworld. Her heart beat coldly. Her guts knotted and she exhaled nausea. The trireme drew closer and it was as if someone was pressing an icy dagger to her stomach. Until illumination struck. The logos demanded:
“Did Cinesias and Ayzebel sacrifice themselves just so you could escape straight into the jaws of death? Live to fight another day Elissa. Live. Better an unsure morrow than a morrow full of endless defeat.”
Like a child destined to be a woman forever possessed she swam close to the trireme and when she got close enough to see the stately silhouette standing on deck she shouted into the vacuum of silence and waved vehemently almost-but-not drowning. And as though a whale distracted by a potential mouthful the wooden behemoth came to a halt and she saw its giant eye turn towards her gazing as if to tell her nothing would be the same again. Fine fine: everything changes: but I will never forget.
Thus her path to freedom would begin in the throes of enslavement.